As the U.S. disabled population grows amidst increasing challenges to American economic competitiveness on the world stage, the time is ripe to change our perceptions of disability and integrally incorporate the creative and often resilient disabled population into our workforce.
The American Association of People With Disabilities recently reported that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice the national average. During the recession, people with disabilities lost jobs five times faster than people without disabilities. In addition, only 25 percent of people with disabilities are meaningfully employed, while 75 percent are unemployed or underemployed. Contrary to popular belief, this in large part is not due to a lack of desire or capability to work.
Disabled individuals overwhelmingly want to work -- and they bring innovative perspectives to the table. Employees with disabilities have skills and experience that can't be found in other population sectors.
After all, many of the greatest innovators and leaders in history had disabilities-and the challenges they faced played a critical role in their ability to achieve greatness. President Roosevelt, though unable to walk, led the mightiest country in history through the Great Depression and World War II. The father of relativity, Mr. Einstein himself, experienced learning disabilities in his youth. And Beethoven, arguably the greatest composer of all time, couldn't hear!
Since confronted with life difficulties that require creative adaptation and ingenuity on a daily basis, disabled individuals know resilience, and they know how to think out-of-the-box and on their feet, or wheels. In fact, recent studies show employers who hire people with disabilities report a higher level of dedication and increased retention.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, workers with disabilities are rated consistently as average or above average in performance, quality and quantity of work, flexibility, and attendance.
The growth rate of the American disabled population is growing tremendously and is outpacing any other subgroup of the U.S. population, according to the Disability Funders Network. Between 1990 and 2000, for example, the number of Americans with disabilities increased 25 percent, making people with disabilities represent the single largest minority group seeking employment in today's marketplace.
At the same time, the disabled are nearly twice as likely as people without disabilities to have an annual household income of $15,000 or less.
For the sake of U.S. competitiveness -- and above all, equality -- it is time to prove wrong the common misperception that individuals with disabilities are non-active members of society. It is time to reframe the negative perception of disability as instead an opportunity-filled and growth-inducing challenge. It is time for employers to hire people with disabilities. It is time to pursue a policy of inclusion and smart economics, quiet simply because disabled individuals bring uniqueness and innovation to the workplace -- something our economy vitally requires.